A crazy cat, a golden lasso, and a rogue teenager

Filmmakers have to struggle to put the super in 'superheroine,' but sometimes it works wonders

Given the renaissance of comics-based movies, why have so few starred female heroes? Take three guesses. That's right: For generations, most girls who read comics bought stuff like True Love Tales and left the capes and super-villains to the boys. Hollywood really has to dig to find female protagonists: half-baked adaptations such as Catwoman and Elektra star women who, in the funny pages, played supporting roles to big-name male heroes.

Some actresses fill their heroines' illustrated shoes (and bustiers) better than others (from left): Jennifer Garner as Elektra, Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer in the cat suit, Thora Birch as Ghost World's Enid, and Linda Carter as Wonder Woman.

The studio heads behind Elektra were so worried about their product that they wouldn't screen it in advance for critics. It's just as well. We love Jennifer Garner on Alias, but she was never right to play Daredevil's dark, exotic sometime girlfriend/sometime foe. Still, the movie's release is reason enough to look at the few female comic-book characters to hit the big screen.

Let's pretend last year's flop never happened, and celebrate Catwoman as embodied by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. Slick, sexy, and substantially unhinged, she stole scenes from Bats himself and could easily have carried her own movie had Warner Brothers been a little brighter about the Batman franchise. Instead, they ran the hero into the ground and waited 12 years before getting around to ruining the Cat.

They're not very showy, but The X-Men's Rogue and Jean Gray were believable inhabitants of Bryan Singer's very serious-minded adaptation. (Halle Berry's Storm was less successful, which should've been a hint to the folks casting her to fill Pfeiffer's ripped leather catsuit.) Both were capable women who had a hard time figuring out how to handle their superhuman gifts. Jean Gray, if the old comic's storylines hold true, will eventually return to make a great villain.

Speaking of serious, Lynda Carter brought the right measure of sternness to her iconic Wonder Woman. The '70s TV series is no landmark of superhero fiction, but was probably as good as we could expect at the time; it at least made it clear that WW was no man's second banana. In recent years, comic-book authors have become serious about Wonder Woman, and the time is ripe for a well-conceived big-screen effort. That goofy costume, which doesn't exactly shout feminist dignity, must be a huge stumbling block.

Straying from superhero comics, two of the finest pen-and-ink-to-flesh-and-blood characters are the stars of Ghost World, Enid and Rebecca. They're three-dimensional people, which is rare enough for cartoons; what's exceptional is that the movie lives up to them. The film's success was impressive for a story that started off as an underground comic - and might eventually inspire someone to adapt one of the most woman-centric and best indie series of all time, Love and Rockets.

Finally, although she's from cartoons instead of comic books, Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl in Popeye may be the single most perfect bit of cartoon casting that will ever happen. Duvall is a singularly annoying actress, the kind of angular, awkward performer that only Robert Altman could love. (He used her in a handful of films before Popeye.) But here, she's unquestionably right: The gold standard, in fact, whenever a new filmmaker comes along wanting to turn drawings into celluloid. If only there were more strong female characters to go around.

By John DeFore


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